Two Views of “Despot’s Progress” (Film-Poems)

Since releasing a number of audio recordings on The Poetry Storehouse, the film-poem community has been remixing my work. Particularly interesting is to see how different filmmakers reinterpret the same poem. In some ways, this feels like the next best thing to being inside different readers’ heads, experiencing their own internal imagery even as they experience the words of my poem.

There are many different considerations in the essentially ekphrastic form of the film-poem, not the least of which is how closely to follow what happens in the poem with a literal depiction on screen. There is clearly a continuum leading in one direction, from it appearing as though the poem is a narration of the visual events, to the opposite end where there is no immediate or apparent connection between the words and images.

However, Othniel Smith‘s film-poem has shown me that there is also a continuum stretching from literal depiction in the opposite direction, toward a hyper-real depiction of what happens in the poem. He combined American WWII propaganda cartoons, complete with Donald Duck giving the Nazi salute, with the words of my poem. Juxtaposing what I hope is a subtle poem, narrated from the perspective of a more generic despot, with imagery that essentially defines caricature (that is, a cartoon about Hitler) creates a shocking effect.

<a href="">Click here to watch the video by Othniel Smith</a>

Watching it, I recall that most Americans were shielded by the media from realising the total scope of atrocity being carried out by their enemies at the time they were watching these anti-Nazi propaganda films. That is, they did not fully realise they were vilifying the ultimate villain. Thus the poem’s suave and surreal despot, juxtaposed against a period caricature of what later came to represent the pinnacle of evil in the Western world, draws out the more problematic aspects of these two versions of “history”.

Equally sinister is Marc Neys‘ interpretation of the poem, though it veers in the opposite direction, toward little immediate and apparent connection between visuals and words:

<a href="">Click here to watch the video by Marc Neys</a>

While a mother and child play on the beach, the gorgeous and chilling soundscape underneath implies something much darker. Could this be the family of the despot, whom he films on holiday with great affection, underscoring his truly psychopathic nature? Or perhaps this is the family of a general who crossed him, whose images are soon to be erased from film and photograph, even as they too are made to disappear? In any case, this juxtaposition of the poem with images of a seemingly innocent mother and child draws out their vulnerability, leading us to think not of the despot but his victims.

However you view and interpret these film-poems, it is a fascinating for me to see such strikingly different reinterpretations of my poems in video form, a privilege to have them thoughtfully reinterpreted by filmmakers, and a pleasure to watch as the poems take on a new life of their own.

“Despot’s Progress” was first published in Orbis #162.

Despot’s Progress

I can be nice. Some have even called me “fun”.
Coincidentally, those people were all found dead
in an unrelated series of what my good friend
the police chief called, “most unfortunate accidents.”

I dictate in all weathers, including the warm ones, at
a cock-eyed angle, at a balmy degree, with latitude
stretching like a sock across toes, I am writing
a new first-person historic account of my greatness.

Do not frown, my downcast daffodil, we will educate
the appalling masses out of their brawn and head-banging,
forcing the miners to march in light, mincing steps
and eat the thinnest pancakes dusted in icing sugar.

We will drag them into the buoyant train stations
of tomorrow, letter by letter and note by note,
coercing the birds to sing from our national songbook
and shit on the fallen statues of lesser men.

Only the most beautiful women from the most beautiful
villages will be allowed near my coffin to mourn, to shed
tears on demand with an approved mineral content, pageant
veterans turning the good side of their anguish to camera.